The Swimming Lesson


August 2, 2016 by Katia

The Swimming Lesson 2

I sit on the parent bench with my eyes fixated on him, or rather the idea of him. I only see very little of the actual child as most of his heart shaped face is covered by green-rimmed gigantic goggles with a nose piece. Different parts of him emerge from the water only to become an underwater color stain with dancing edges seconds later. The hair that he carries as a defining trait is darker, longer and stripped of its shape.

He is seven now and most of the time I struggle as I try to resurrect the older versions of him. I want to remember but usually find myself unable to access that presumed audio-visual archive, where every previous layer of him exists, just waiting to be admired. The current one is so vibrant, loud and fascinating that it leaves very little room for the past. But something is different about today. Without any warning a memory finds me instead of the other way around. It swims toward me but rather than long, lanky legs and feet that are always slightly bigger than I expect I see a chubby thigh and curled up toes emerging from the water. I grasp on to this micro-memory, not ready to let go yet and start collecting more details: the same hazel eyes revealing the buds of emotions I’ve grown to recognize like the back of my hand. I see the same heart shaped face but it’s not yet carved into its present more succinct form and I skip a beat at the sight of his once golden hair with curls that forget their original shape as they hit the ear-line and softly land on his shoulders in straighter strands. I feel the weight of that toddler in my arms. Sense his disquiet in the water. My mind travels farther beyond the pool and I remember how surprised we were at the discovery that our fearless adventurer didn’t like swimming. Putting that fact under the parental microscope I came to the conclusion that it was about the lack of ability to control his environment rather than the act of swimming. I was as convinced of it as only a new mother can be. Now I tell myself it was probably just the water in his ears.

I de-blur my lens and watch him in the water again. I can see the tension in his shoulders and I know that they still hold some of that historical baggage but he is now eager to conquer the water, sometimes attempting an exercise before his instructor finished demonstrating it. My attention is pulled toward the smile, my smile. It’s been there the whole time and I can’t help it. I am the parent, a role that still continues to surprise and humble me. The water offers another memory of a warmer country and an outdoor pool. I am the child and my grandma, my babooshka, is on parent duty. I remember the sense of vastness, the broken reflection of the sun and not liking to hold my head underwater to blow bubbles. I later practiced at home with a beige plastic tub. I remember how much I enjoyed – despite the head in the water – the sense of freedom offered by “the arrow”, an exercise where you launched yourself into the pool, pushing away from its edge with your feet. The short dark hair and creamy bathing suit of a female instructor are memory snapshots. What I do recall vividly is the sense of curiosity evoked by the unexplained goose bumps along the bikini lines of her swimsuit. Everything else is fading at the edges. I am sure my babooshka carried a book in her purse and that she would have been reading. Or was she watching me through thick glasses with her impaired-vision eagle eyes to make sure I wasn’t drowning? I find that possibility just as likely. Perhaps she was doing a little bit of both. This unsolicited memory doesn’t go down my throat as smoothly as the first one, and I gently part with it as I’ve been doing with almost every other memory of my babooshka since December 2014.

I don’t hear the actual instructions, just broken syllables but I marvel at my son as he flips from his back to his belly to his side and completes an exercise at the count of five. His only safety net are his goggles, the goggles that he had double checked and confirmed with me that I didn’t forget, because the goggles are his cape.

I think of how I’ve never quite outgrown that initial discomfort of immersing my head in the water and how that became the defining trait of swimming to me. A succession of memories marches in: I’m a tween at a friend’s neighborhood pool and I’m “re-learning” to swim, wearing every possible floating device and feeling mortified as I watch younger kids race by. I’m a university student required to take a semester of sports and I elect swimming. There is no longer suppressed fear or intense excitement associated with this decision. Those are replaced with the logistics of getting my body swimsuit ready and with words that put a distance between emotions and self: can we spare the test and just declare ourselves as members of group D or F or whatever is considered sub-par? Those memories float away as unnoticeably as they appeared leaving no emotional skid marks. And I see my son once again conquering, overcoming, celebrating.

What is it about this water? Why does it take me to so many places? Maybe it’s its power of abstraction. “I wish I could stay there for one more hour.” he tells me excitedly as we walk up the stairs leading to the dressing room, him wrapped in a towel and dripping water, me dry and trying not to get my flip-flopped feet wet. “You see?” I tell him “there is a right time for everything. You don’t remember this, but you took some swimming classes as a baby and then once again as a toddler and you didn’t like the water at all. I’m so happy we waited until you were ready.”

“I do remember!” he passionately objects and begins speaking rapidly as if he needs to chase down that memory before it disappears, “there was an instructor and he was telling me to sing a song when I sat on the swim board to make me forget that I was scared, but it didn’t work and I was singing the song and crying”. I embrace this new memory and every speck of emotion, information and insight it offers and somehow some of it becomes my own.


That didn’t just happen once. Watching my son swim every week brings up some intense emotions, although not all of it is nostalgia based. Do you ever feel the same way watching your child perform a certain activity?

25 thoughts on “The Swimming Lesson

  1. I love the way you have written this… that mingling of past and present is so nostalgic..

  2. bisimodupe1975 says:

    Nice twist and turns in your story. But mostly i enjoyed imaging how much fun you must have had together in the water.

  3. You are a gifted and beautiful storyteller. Your words have a wonderful ebb and flow between the yesterdays and today. The water is a scary place for me as well, not only as a child but as an adult. I really just stay away from it now, watching my boys from the edges, trying really hard not transfer my fears onto them.

    • Katia says:

      Thank you SO much! That means the world coming from you! I am equal parts drawn to the water and frightened by it. I can so relate to your fear and not wanting to pass it on to your children. I was so worried when Ben was showing signs of fear. I didn’t want this to be a lifelong impediment for him the same way it’s been for me. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and encouraging comment! ❤

  4. rhiyaya says:

    My daughter was roller skating around the house this morning. She is about the age I was the first time I put on skates. It’s so nostalgic to watch!

    • Katia says:

      It’s amazing! And what’s interesting is that it’s an ongoing thing for me. Whenever I watch him swim I’m overcome with emotion. I loved roller skating as a child. I can just imagine watching my daughter do the same (I have two sons).

  5. Moving. Beautiful. All the feels. ❤️❤️❤️

  6. Lizzi says:

    This is utterly, utterly GORGEOUS, Katia! BRAVO! I always love reading your thoughts and peering into the looking-glass of your memories, as you share them. I feel as though I could see your babooshka reading with one eye on child you, and you jumping to keep your flip-flops dry, and your son sat on the side, crying and singing…

    The other day, Niece and Neff were outside in the garden, in the tiny paddling pool (smaller (maybe) than the ones I remember having as a kid) and they were shouting and squealing and chattering like monkeys under grey skies and waning light…and I heard my mum tell the, “That’s the last bucket” and suddenly got taken right back to the smell of wet plastic and grass-and-mud-infused hose-water, and the delicious, spreading warmth of a bucket of hot water poured into the too-cold shallowness, and trying to squather down to get as much of my body as possible into the heat.

    • Katia says:

      That’s a beautiful memory and beautiful moment with niece and neff. It’s so interesting how those memories creep up on us and I found it especially surprising that watching him made me think of myself. I don’t think I often make these parallels in my mind. Maybe because our experiences are so profoundly different. I wonder if it would’ve happened more often had I been raising them in the country where I was born. I’m so glad you liked it, friend!

      • Lizzi says:

        It might have, or…the memories might have been less stark. I will be interested to see what happens to my internals when I move (WHEN – I’m being positive…)

      • Katia says:

        You should be positive and I have no doubt you’ll move. It’s a very interesting experience. Very empowering and sometimes hard. Totally worth it. There’s an element of erasing oneself or parts of oneself and creating something new and I think that you are in tune with yourself enough to not only succeed in this but enjoy it and learn from it as well. 🙂

      • Lizzi says:

        Goodness knows I’ve begun on the process of erasing parts of myself don’t like, and creating new! I really SO very hope a move across the world will cement the deal and help me the rest of the way to Becoming. The awesome thing is, I’m beginning to think I could do it here, too, and that’s a bit of a first. It all takes time.

        As to the learning – I can’t wait to get stuck in!

  7. Oh I so get this. I see baby her mixed with now her all the time and it is such a roller coaster of emotions. And what you say about timing? Absolutely true. Love this.

    • Katia says:

      Thank you so much! I knew he wasn’t ready back then but started feeling guilty when all of his friends were learning to swim. Watching him now is a good reminder if the importance of timing and trusting your gut as a parent 🙂 how old is your little girl?

      • Just turned 8 in June and is a late starter to swim as well. Kind of my fault, I guess, because we aren’t big swimmers, but they have to learn, right? She was no way ready when she was littler and now it makes me feel so bad that other kids are so far ahead. But you know what? I have to remember that we each bloom at our own time.

      • Katia says:

        Exactly! Don’t feel bad (although I understand completely how you feel, as I’ve felt the same way every time another one of my son’s friends’ parents posted pictures of them swimming in lakes etc). It’s true that in order to succeed we must come to a certain activity at the time that is right for us. 🙂

  8. This was such a lovely read I actually read it twice. It reminds me so much of my son now age 7 he had baby and toddler swimming lessons and there was a part he just couldn’t do – jumping in which then led him to be upset through the lesson but every week we took him as he was always excited and wanted to try. Eventually we stopped going. We’ve taken him since and he has actually jumped in and we all just played and he had lots of fun. I take my daughter now who is 20 months so far she seems fearless enjoys jumping in and even when she cries at the idea of going under the water she does it and she’s always smiling! All children learn things at different times what is right for one can be completely the wrong time for another child.

    • Katia says:

      Thank you so much for reading it and not just once but twice! I completely agree with your statement that what’s right for one child at a certain age doesn’t make the same thing right for another child (just as us grownups don’t model our behaviours and preferences after someone else’s). I think that because we come to parenting with zero prep we desperately look for some points of reference and asking other parents when their children started doing something is the easiest and sometimes most natural thing to do. As new parents we don’t realize that we should look at this as a mere point of reference not a rule. I like that our seven year-old sons went through similar experiences and love that the experience you’re having with your daughter is so different. One of my favourite things about parenting is discovering the little differences between my children. Sounds like yours might be somewhat different than one another too. 🙂

  9. Yvonne says:

    It’s taken me a while to get round to reading this, but it was worth it! You do write beautifully.

    It is funny the way memories can come tumbling out of nowhere as we watch our children. I sat many hours by poolsides because my daughters were both in a swimming club (team) for several years. Even just reading this brought memories of that and memories of memories.

    My older daughter took to water like the fish she is (Pisces! 🙂 ) whereas my younger was less keen. We were lucky to have a very understanding instructor who suggested to sit with her on the wide steps of the toddler pool and just let her see the water. By the time the hour was up, she’d relaxed and we were in the water. I agree with your approach of waiting till your son was ready, though like you, there were times when I found it hard to trust my intuition and thought my child should be like others. (Frustrating that we can’t do it over with our first kids once we have the knowledge that comes with having gone through it! 🙂 )

    Even though our older daughter loved to swim and was very good at it, when she was around 6, she was moved up a class to a large pool and with bigger kids she didn’t know. She became terrified to get in the water – even though when she’d finally pluck up courage she enjoyed herself. That went on for weeks, but eventually she made some friends and it gradually got easier.

  10. Oh Katia, this resonates with me in so many ways. My daughter refused to go back in the water after only one lesson. She was two and I was horrified. I was convinced she’d never learn to swim and I lost many a night’s sleep over this certainty. If only I had a fast forward button to press, I’d have coped SO much better. This gal went on to become a swim coach and life guard via swim club. Whenever I saw her up on the starting blocks, I’d offer up a silent prayer and think back to those early days when she’d stand, arms folded, jaw jutting out, and announcing “I won’t be swimming today, Mommy. “

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